In a recent decision, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania in Matthews v. Wince, 2017 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1388 (April 13), upheld a trial court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit brought by a tenant against her landlord for personal injuries the tenant sustained when she slipped and fell on the front yard of the premises.
In Matthews, the tenant rented a single-story home in Scranton. The home’s front entrance had a porch area with front steps that led to a front lawn. Nevertheless, there was no walkway or railing from the base of the steps of the porch to the sidewalk in the front of the property, the opinion said.
The door to the back of the house led to an alleyway with a parking spot for the tenant, the opinion said.
In the winter months, when the city of Scranton would fail to plow the alleyway, the tenant would park her car on the street in front of the property and use the front door to enter and exit the home by walking across the front lawn, the opinion said.
During the winter of 2014, while the tenant was walking down one of the pathways that she had created by shoveling the snow and ice from her front lawn toward her car parked on the street in the front of the property, she slipped and fell to the ground and sustained significant personal injuries, the opinion said.
The following year, the tenant filed a complaint against the landlord under the theories of the implied warranty of habitability and common-law negligence.
According to the Superior Court, in the complaint, the tenant alleged, among other things, that the landlord “managed the property and were responsible for snow and ice removal, maintenance in the front and the back of said property and safe ingress and egress to said property” and that the landlord “knew or in the exercise of reasonable care should have had knowledge of the existence of the dangerous condition [the accumulation of snow and ice on the path] so as to be able to remove it or remedy the condition.”
In responding to the complaint, the landlord stated that the tenant, as a tenant-in-possession of the property, was responsible for maintaining the leased premises and surrounding area, including the front and back of the property and ensuring that she had “safe and appropriate methods of ingress and egress to the property,” the opinion said.
The landlord ultimately “filed a summary judgment motion claiming that: the tenant fully realized the risks involved in proceeding along the pathway that she shoveled and that she voluntarily assumed those risks; the landlord did not breach any duty owed to the tenant; (3) the landlord were not negligent; and the tenant failed to present sufficient evidence to support a claim against them upon which relief may be granted.”
The trial court granted the summary judgment motion, finding that “there was a safe and satisfactory means of ingress and egress to the … property by use of a rear entrance way and that the city’s failure to plow the back alleyway does not constitute a breach of the implied warranty of habitability.”
The tenant appealed the trial court’s ruling to the Superior Court.
On appeal, the Superior Court first addressed the tenant’s argument that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment based upon the implied warranty of habitability.
Citing the state Supreme Court’s decision in Feld v. Merriam, 485 A.2d 742 (Pa. 1984), the Superior Court pointed out that, in Pennsylvania, residential “landlords owe a duty to protect tenants from injury or loss arising out of a negligent failure to maintain a rental property in a safe condition” and that “a tenant seeking to recover damages stemming from the condition of a rental property may pursue claims sounding in ordinary negligence or a breach of the implied warranty of habitability.”
Under Pennsylvania law, the implied warranty of habitability guarantees that residential landlords will provide facilities and services vital to life, health, and safety of their tenants and to use of the leased premises.
Citing to Kuriger v. Cramer, 438 A.2d 739 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1982), the Superior Court held that, in order to establish a breach of the implied warranty of habitability, the tenant must establish that: the tenant provided notice to the landlord of the defect or condition, the landlord had a reasonable opportunity to make the necessary repairs, and the landlord failed to do so. The Superior Court reiterated that, “in order to constitute a breach of the warranty, the defect must be ‘of a nature and kind which will prevent the use of the lot for its intended purpose to provide the premises fit for habitation.'”
In reviewing the merits of the appeal, the Superior Court summarized the testimony of the tenant taken at her deposition.
The Superior Court pointed out that, when the tenant first visited the property, it had rained that day and the tenant specifically asked the landlord how she was going to generally get in and out of the house. In response to that question, the tenant admitted at her deposition that the landlord stated to her that she “could use the back door so we were using the back door so the front we didn’t even use.”
According to the Superior Court, in her deposition, the tenant even asked the landlord when she first visited the property “how she was to enter and exit the premises in the winter” and the tenant admitted at the deposition that the landlord responded, “This is what it was.”
In her deposition, according to the Superior Court, the tenant testified that “despite the fact that she noticed the muddy front lawn on the day she inspected the premises, she also indicated that she thought it might be slippery and yet still decided to rent the premises.”
During the deposition, the tenant further testified that she and others “always shoveled the pathway leading from the front door of the property to the street and, that prior to the accident, they would use these pathways to get to the sidewalk and to the front of house” and that, “since the accident … they still do all the shoveling of the property.”
At the deposition of the landlord, they stated that the tenant “never indicated to him that she had difficulty coming and going from the property using the front lawn or that she had trouble parking in the back alleyway due to snow” and they did not “recall ever having any conversations with the tenant about whether they were going to do anything with the front of the property in terms of putting in a means of ingress and egress from the front porch steps to the front sidewalk,” the opinion said.
Further, according to the Superior Court, the landlord testified that they were ”completely unaware that snow would accumulate in large amounts in the back alleyway because the City would occasionally fail to plow the alley.”
The Superior Court concluded that, since the tenant did not give notice to the landlord of the alleged defect or condition of the premises, “namely the lack of a front walkway,” by communicating to the landlord that she often was unable to use the back entrance and alleyway and, as a result, was forced to use the front of the property as her means of ingress and egress to her parked car on the public street, and because the lack of a front walkway prevented the tenant “from using the lot for its intended purpose—to make the premises fit for habitation,” the trial court did not err in ruling that the tenant could not prevail, as a matter of law, on an action for a violating an implied warranty of habitability.
The Superior Court also determined whether the trial court should have dismissed the tenant’s common-law negligence claim against the landlord.
At the outset, the Superior Court emphasized that, “unlike a claim for breach of an implied warranty of habitability, to prove ordinary negligence a tenant need not give notice.”
The Superior Court was unpersuaded with the tenant’s reliance upon its previous decisions in Echeverria v. Holley, 142 A.3d 29 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016), and Riveria v. Slefon Home Repairs & Improvement, 439 A.2d 739 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1982).
In Echeverria, several individuals lost their lives to a fire at a multifamily structure. The decedents’ estates filed a complaint in common-law negligence for failure to install smoke detectors at the property and for failure to maintain electrical wiring at the property.
The Superior Court in Echeverria found that the absence of smoke detectors constituted a dangerous condition that could potentially be considered, by a jury, to be a breach of a landlord’s duty to maintain the property in a safe condition.
In contrast, the Superior Court in Matthews did not believe there was a comparable dangerous condition on the premises because “the tenant-created pathway down the front lawn of the property was slippery and wet on the day in question is a condition that the tenant was aware of from the moment she rented the property, was a means of ingress and egress she chose to use despite the fact that the property had another means to enter and exit the home, and was not something that would foreseeably result in injuries to the tenant.”
In Riveria, “while first inspecting the premises, the tenant specifically mentioned her concern about the condition of the wooden landing at the top of a wooden staircase which provided a means of ingress and egress to the leased premises,” and “the landlord assured the tenant that he would have someone come over to ‘take a look at it.'”
When the tenant in Riveria “fell through the landing and injured herself, she brought a cause of action in trespass against the landlord.”
The Superior Court in Riveria “concluded that it was a matter for the fact finder to determine whether or not the landlord was subject to liability for the tenant’s injuries based up ‘an alleged dangerous condition existing before the tenant had taken possession’ and whether the landlord ‘failed to exercise reasonable care to repair the condition and whether or not the existence of the condition was in violation of an implied warranty of habitability.'”
The Superior Court in Matthews indicated that, unlike the landlord in Riveria, the landlord in Matthews “never agreed to repair any dangerous condition on the premises when Matthews first inspected the property and decided to lease it” and, “more importantly, they were not even aware of any such condition on the property.”
The Superior Court emphasized that “the law is clear that a landlord is generally not liable for injuries sustained by his tenant on the leased premises when he or she is entirely out of control and possession,” and that, based upon the factual circumstances, the tenant clearly maintained control and possession of the premises.
The Superior Court noted that there is an exception to the general rule where, “at the time of the leasing, the landlord knows, or has reason to know, of a defect.” However, the Superior Court stated that the landlord did not know that the tenant shoveled the front lawn to create a pathway to access the front sidewalk and street in the winter months.
Reprinted with permission from the May 10, 2017 edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, mailto:email@example.com or visit www.almreprints.com.